A full measure of liberty is not now perhaps to be expected by your nation, nor am I confident they are prepared to preserve it. More than a generation will be requisite, under the administration of reasonable laws favoring the progress of knowledge in the general mass of the people, and their habituation to an independent security of person and property, before they will be capable of estimating the value of freedom, and the necessity of a sacred adherence to the principles on which it rests for preservation. Instead of that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason, if recovered by mere force or accident, it becomes, with an unprepared people, a tyranny still, of the many, the few, or the one.
To Marquis de Lafayette, February 14, 1815
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders build democracy slowly and methodically.
Jefferson and the Frenchman Lafayette had been friends since Revolutionary War days, when the latter became an aide to General Washington. This letter was written when France had finally put its 25-year terror of revolution, Robespierre and Napoleon behind them. Jefferson’s subject in this excerpt was that revolutionary France of the late 1780s (when he was there as ambassador) wasn’t equipped to move directly from monarchy to democracy.
This sentiment is cautionary for “nation builders.” Is it realistic for a country to transition smoothly and in a single step from dictatorship to liberty? As much as Jefferson would like that, he concluded it was probably unrealistic. The citizenry not prepared for liberty would not be able to preserve it if granted.
What was necessary for that dictatorship-to-liberty transition?
1. Time. “More than a generation,” would be required.
2. “Reasonable laws” favoring the progressive education of the people would help them understand liberty and their role in maintaining it.
3. Citizens coming to expect safety for themselves and their property
4. These three will help people esteem the value of their freedom
5. That esteem will bring “the necessity of sacred adherence” to the principles that safeguard that freedom.
6. The result would be a liberty “which takes root and growth in the progress of reason,” i.e. a freedom nurtured over time by education, held upright and fed by roots that have grown deep.
Failing this slow and methodical process, a dictatorship overthrown left its people unprepared for freedom, making them susceptible to yet another tyranny.